Friday, March 14, 2008

Tibetan For Kids – 10 Ways To Keep The Language Alive

“How am I supposed to teach them Tibetan, if I myself don’t have a decent command of the language”? My friend Pema looked rather low-spirited. As a single mother of four, life was already quite tough on her. “You know, right now they’re toddlers and I can just about cope with that type of vocabulary, but what about later”?

“You mean like when they’re coming home from school, talking about Algebra? Global warming? The dangers of nuclear energy? HIV? Islamic fundamentalism? By then at the very latest, your ‘speak Tibetan!’ used on them since their childhood will inevitably get you nowhere, for how do you say these things in Tibetan? How? It’s just not fair”. I couldn’t agree more. Pema’s agony was also mine.

For some Tibetans living abroad, the deteriorating state of modern spoken Tibetan from one generation to the next has become a source for worry. My colleague Beatriz from work sends her 3-year old to a Spanish-language nursery. My colleague Tomoko sends her two children to a Japanese-language primary school in another town, and when I was little, all Italian kids in my school went to Italian classes every Wednesday afternoon.

For Tibetan, there just isn’t this type of a professional infrastructure. The Tibetan classes offered when I was little were boring as hell, with an overemphasis on the written language, calligraphy, and learning grammar rules by heart that made absolutely no sense to children.

Even my Dad, who had gone through the old education system in Tibet, thought that’s off and saved us from the ordeal. You know what? Some of the kids, who had to sit through these classes for years, still can’t read or write a single decent sentence in Tibetan as grown ups. Ineffective and absolutely tragic.

20 years later, Pema and I are taking our children for a trial lesson to a Tibetan class offered in a town nearby, trusting that today’s Tibetan teachers have also discovered the insights of education science and methodology of the last two decades.

Far from it! It was déjà vu all over. If there were a prize for the most child-unfit, mind-numbing teaching style, these guys would win it. What kid needs this type of negative reinforcement that Tibetan is a drag, complicated and absolutely useless?

Pema too thought the teaching style was out of sync: “It already requires a superhuman effort just to continue speaking Tibetan in a foreign environment, why make everything still more difficult by teaching children Tibetan in such an antiquated and theoretical way”?

So in sum, we’re pretty much on our own with regard to keeping the language alive. Over the years, my partner and I have developed a couple of strategies to cope with this unenviable situation. As Pema says, the way to start is with oneself. If I as a parent have nothing to give, how can I possibly pass something on?

Here are 10 ways that have helped us and our kids keeping Tibetan alive and kicking.

Action 1: CommitWe consider the Tibetan language to be at the core of our identity. We want Tibetan to come to our children naturally. It shouldn’t be an artificial effort to speak it, nor something political, or something to be particularly proud of. Speaking Tibetan should be as normal to them as speaking Spanish is to Beatriz’ son or Japanese to Tomoko’s children. As parents, our top goal is to help our kids feel at ease with Tibetan.

Action 2: Decide and focus
Our focus is on the spoken language. We aspire for our kids to possess a vocabulary decent enough to comfortably talk about topics of daily life and of general interest. Reading and writing is a nice-to-have but not on our radar screen. There’s time for this later in their lives.

Action 3: Look it up
In order for the children to develop a respectable vocabulary, we as parents should have one to begin with. Whenever we don’t know a word or expression, we do what learners of a language normally do: consult the dictionary. We use Goldstein’s English-Tibetan Dictionary of Modern Tibetan as a starting point, since most of the time, we know how we would say something in English. Meanwhile this dictionary is also a bit outdated and there may be more recent ones. The suggested translation can sound a bit funny sometimes. Test it out on an authoritative native speaker before you unleash it onto your children. – My mom is always a good test person. When I dropped the word wangpo kyönchen she knew right away I meant “handicapped people”. But when I said there’ll be tukpa kogton - hollow noodles - for dinner, she gave up. OK, it’s silly to translate Macceroni. Some things should just stay the way they are.

Action 4: Be up to speed
Every Thursday, I watch VOA’s Tibetan-language news on the web. It’s integrated into my weekly routine. When the kids are in bed, I watch Kunleng TV – no Pema, not because of Dorje Tseten, one of the hosts, although he is a cutie with that grainy Amdo accent! But from a linguistic standpoint, the most useful thing is the weekly wrap-up of what’s been going on around the world. Even though I don’t understand every word that’s being said, I’m often able to deduct the meaning from what I see. It’s here where I pick up a lot of contemporary vocabulary. Climate change? - Namshi gyündo! Nuclear weapons? – Tüdrin tsünja! I got many more and I can pack them into decent sentences as well. My latest acquisition is kokso rüso – corruption!

Action 5: Take notes and review
I don’t just sit there and watch the news. I sit there with a notepad and a pencil, phonetically writing down the new words and expression I’m learning while watching the news. The notepad is so small it fits into my pocket. I always carry it with me and sometimes when I need to make the time pass - during the commute to work, in the toilet, or lining up for something - I take it out and flip through it. This way the stuff somehow gets stuck in my brain and I can retrieve it when needed.

Action 6: Use it or loose it
This requires some discipline and planning since knowledge of Tibetan is not an absolute necessity. We all would get by just fine without it. So be persistent and attentive. Your kids will fall back into the dominant language time and again. Don’t deviate from your course, stick to it. Even if they speak to you in the outside language, your answer and reaction should always come in Tibetan.

Action 7: Make it fun
Since keeping Tibetan alive is a long-term effort, show your children that speaking Tibetan is not a chore but a lot of fun. Show them Tibetan-language films, music videos, and cartoons. This requires, of course, that you take the necessary steps to get your hands on these things as they can’t be bought around the corner. And don’t be picky. “I don’t like the type of Tibetan they speak in films from China” is just something we can’t afford. People speak Tibetan with all sorts of accents and intonations. Our kids should get used to that instead of carrying over our antipathies.
Also use “regular” children’s picture books to tell them a good-night story in Tibetan every evening. Little kids focus on the pictures, the text underneath could be Swahili, they couldn’t care less. A big plus of the story-telling approach is that the vocabulary, ideas and concepts gradually form a mental structure on which to build further when they start school in the outside language. It gives them stability and self-confidence.

Action 8: Be clearLatest research on bilingualism shows that kids need clear rules when to use which language. Establish a rule. Ours is “Tibetan in the family – English on the outside”. It works but you have to be consequent. Again, if you don’t work on your Tibetan vocabulary, you will gradually succumb to the dominant language. It starts harmlessly with mixing a word here and there. Watch out! And also watch out for those uncooperative relatives and friends, who always fall back into the dominant language when talking with your kids. Sensitise your Tibetan-speaking environment and get them onboard. You and your partner(s) should be in absolute agreement on this one.

Action 9: Put it into context
Kids should realise that Tibetan is not just something peculiar spoken in the home, but without real functional value. We take the kids to Tibet every summer to reconnect with the bigger picture, and let them immerse into the place and the people. It’s probably not everybody’s cup of tea to go to Tibet regularly, but you can substitute that with a Tibetan-language summer camp in your vicinity, regular visits to Dharamsala or whatever your preference is. You get the point. It’s immersion.

Action 10: Chill out!Some things just shouldn’t be changed. Don’t become so deeply absorbed with linguistic purism that you go out Tibetanising every loan word. Like me with Macceroni. Or the folks who say tsigcha when they mean coffee. - Goodness, gracious! Who wants to drink “burned tea” for that’s what tsigcha literally means? It’s not only a miserable rendering, it makes coffee sound appalling, it’s conceptually wrong. Let’s accept coffee as it is. It won’t hurt the language. Tibetan is cool enough to accommodate. Just think of oldies such as rili (railway) or motra (motor), and lean back.

It looks like a fact of life that Tibetan will be spoken less frequently and less well from generation to generation. People like Pema or me can’t reverse that, we can only try to make a difference for our families. But for all the effort and discipline it takes, let’s not forget that there’s a life, a world, so many things out there to learn and enjoy, beyond the Tibetan horizon

Mountain Phoenix

All written content on this blog is coyprighted. Please do not repost entire essays on your websites without seeking my prior written consent.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Compassion? Have Mercy!

Have you also asked yourself whether there can be too much of a good thing? I asked myself that question when someone talked to me about Tamo Lüjin, the legend where the Buddha sacrifices his body to a starving tigress and her cubs. People still go for pilgrimage to the place in the Kathmandu Valley, Namo Buddha, where it’s supposed to have happened hundreds and hundreds of years ago, in one of the Buddha’s previous lives.

From today’s perspective, where’s the balance in this, I ask myself? Where was the Buddha’s compassion towards himself? Don’t we have a responsibility to be good to ourselves as well? Was that a gesture in the heat of the moment or something thought out? Who can tell? I only know that if I applied Tamo Lüjin logic to my daily life, I’d be downright naive.

It happens ever so often that a prestigious project pops up and everyone in my team is keen on getting the lead, including me. Why? Because it’s an interesting change to your everyday job and can be instrumental in gaining visibility, getting known, position yourself, and ultimately move ahead. The more you move ahead, the more power and influence you have, the more you can actively shape things.

Ultimately, it’s about taking charge and making the most of your opportunities while being true to yourself and not harming others intentionally. To me, there’s nothing wrong to be assertive and focussed as long as you are true to your principles. So where do I strike the balance? Where is the limit to compassion in complex situations of modern life? Where would Tamo Lüjin leave my capacity to compete?

By mere co-incidence, Yudon-la, a Tibetan colleague, told me over lunch the other day, that in her school, run by the Tibetan exile-government in India, the motto was “others before self” and that the most selfless student was considered the best person. – “Gosh”, I thought a bit shocked, “the legend is really alive. People are encouraged to forget about their own needs and put others first...” Does that help in preparing Tibetans to face the challenges of a modern world? After all, they are no longer among themselves, not even in their homeland…

Tamo Lüjin can also take on pretty subtle forms as I discovered with myself. If your kids were fighting over a toy which belongs to the older one, I bet you a Tibetan parent would say to the older kid: “Common, sweetie, give the toy to the little one, you’re older, you should be considerate, your brother is still so small, ok? Now that’s my boy, very good.” – At least I used to say that.

Until I came across a reference in one of those parenting books. It said I should have taught the little one to respect, that the toy belongs to the older one, and that the younger one can only play with it, if the older one agrees. To sum up, what I used to do weakened the older one’s natural ability to assert himself, inducing yieldingness and giving up early. And it made the younger one believe he can have everything through the mere fact of being younger. Bottom line: I almost screwed up both kids! - Too much empathy then, is not good for a kid’s self-confidence.

The Dalai Lama time and again encourages Tibetans to study and work hard so they can compete with the Chinese. Tough call. Tibetans must be better than the Chinese – or Americans or Europeans, wherever they live – in order to have an equal chance in any profession. They must find a way to strike a balance between compassion on the on hand, and assertiveness on the other.

As far as I’m concerned Tamo Lüjin is what it is: A legend, from another era, for another audience. For my life, another quotation from the Buddha works better: “No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path”.

Mountain Phoenix

All written content on this blog is coyprighted. Please do not repost entire essays on your websites without seeking my prior written consent.